Dry like steel: A wrecking ball of a book—Wamuwi Mbao reviews Adam Habib’s Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall

Wamuwi Mbao reviews Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall by Adam Habib, finding it engrossing, but ultimately unconvincing.

Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall
Adam Habib
Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2019

The work of mythology is to guard against things being forgotten. What is thought to be in danger of slipping from view must be inscribed. Mythology does not deal with what is true and what is false: it deals with what is important. In this regard, it does the heavy lifting for inchoate things like feeling and sentiment. It preserves. But preserved things are not the same as their originals. A pickled olive is not an olive growing on the branch.

In one sense, Adam Habib’s Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall is an attempt at securing events against despoliation. A quasi-memoir of Habib’s activities at the University of the Witwatersrand during the first wave of the Fallist movement (2015–2017), it is, in some senses, an unreviewable book. A university vice chancellor writing about events on his campus is like an actor claiming the authority to review a play because he was in it. It might have worked had the author been more candid about his project, had he acknowledged that every act of remembering unavoidably supplants the original. To remember is to give new meaning.

It is important, then, to remember the blockbuster spectacle that was Fees Must Fall as, from its outset, a battle of representation. What else could it have been, when it played out via the flattening media that professes to be ‘social’? Those who were present cannot have failed to notice how developments occurred with a speed that left traditional forms far behind. They belonged entirely to the constant refresh cycle of Twitter and Facebook. A book by a managerial officer about Fees Must Fall seems like a misunderstanding of what was most vital about it: that the struggle itself was about dislodging the fixity of top-down meaning. To say this is not to claim some special provenance for the hashtag movements—there are easy parallels with other campus struggles from the twentieth century. But it is to suggest that what is needed is a more self-reflexive work than this.

For Rebels and Rage is a wrecking-ball of a book. Indeed, it isn’t so much a book as it is a workshop manual for management, justifying the course pursued and directing how to stay this course until the company is on track to make a stable profit once again. To sift through it and extract specific He Saids and They Dids from it would produce only tedious reading. There are, to my mind, three books stitched into one here:

  1. The affective dimension of Fallist politics and the ethics of social struggle;
  2. The institutional problems of higher education institutions in South Africa; and
  3. Adam Habib’s personal reflections on his part in the events that happened in the initial years of the Fallist movement.

Each of these might have worked as a separate book, and perhaps 1 and 3 might have blended together in a fruitful way. But in the book’s current form they make for frustrated bedfellows.

Nevertheless, there are doubtless many who are curious to know Habib has to say. His book ends up as three parts polemic and two parts reportage, with a pinch of speculative forecasting. It proceeds by way of anecdote: at such and such a time, Habib met this or that person, whose actions (destructive, pathological or dishonest) then demonstrated the rectitude of Habib’s thinking about the situation. Everything is marshalled into the service of Habib’s larger point: the author is a great collator of facts, especially those relating to the mendacious conduct of others.

On occasion the book overcomes this threshold of exculpation. Habib cuts away the springy sentimentality that has already started to emerge around the rubble of the movement, for example. He breaks down why slogans and shouting don’t do the difficult work of thinking through what is to be done with what is a fundamentally untenable situation. He makes pertinent concessions to the courageous actions of many students who challenged rather than passively acceding. But the cast of opposition figures who populate Habib’s recollections are not given speaking voices. Or rather, they speak in Habib’s voice, to confirm what he holds to be true about them. Certainly, only the most willingly naïve of spectators would have imagined that the student leaders—whose leadership was produced only by the institution’s obstinate inability to work with more provisional forms of representation—were faultless. The major shortsightedness of this book lies in its author’s inability to afford the same hospitality to the other players as he wishes he had received.

There are numerous instances, exhumed with worrying verisimilitude, where Habib is at pains to display his good faith. Brief moments of jocularity with Mcebo Dlamini or Vuyani Pambo are undercut by frequent expressions of grave disappointment when they or others did not afford Habib reciprocal grace. But these moments ignore the reality of a situation in which one party wields considerably more institutional power than the other. Habib’s susceptibility to the slings and arrows that are part and parcel of his office seems all the more odd given how much of the book turns on the need for ethical consideration. It seems unbecomingly petulant to complain about students not giving you the right to have your say when you occupy the highest public office at the university.

One wishes for more of the reflecting that was promised on the cover. Over 224 pages (the ‘references and reading list’ at the back of the book being an odd display of vertical leadership in what is meant to be a conversation), Habib lays into the rubble with his trademark robust cant. Chapter by chapter, he writes of a movement that was chimerical in its aims, thwarted by its leaders’ inexperience, and finally vandalised by a brand of identity politicking that destroys where building is required. With noisy indiscriminacy, he performs the role of the wounded king, dismayed that his subjects have forsaken the compact (we take the money, you take the degree) to stage their own pageant.

It makes for disquieting reading. Habib makes the salient point that the student leaders represented only a small fraction of the wider student body. Why then does he seem disproportionately slighted by their words? A sour memory of being harangued will be tailed by some rejoinder about people who don’t understand the dynamics of their struggle, which is a bit like an adult standing at a jungle gym shouting instructions on how to play to the children. Habib’s views are informed by an ebullient parti pris, one that seems to assume that anything that doesn’t agree with his mapping is muddle-headed. He expounds in de haut en bas fashion for pages and pages, where the objects of his re-education—populist student leaders and those academics he terms ‘the Pol Pot brigade’—are maligned as being hopelessly idealistic, misinformed, and too willing to play to the gallery at the cost of ‘ordinary, pragmatic voices’.

The book is largely taken up with defending the author’s actions and philosophies, but it does so from the lofty vantage point of the Vice Chancellor’s office. It’s hard to generate sympathy for the difficult position Habib must surely have been in, when his writing allows us so little access to the person behind the job title. And even with a generous homage paid by no less than Achille Mbembe (whose cover- vouchsafing is as much an alarm bell as a grinning owner telling you the dog doesn’t bite), Rebels and Rage reads like the work of someone who doesn’t know when to stop being a manager.

Perhaps that is the problem. The book proceeds with the confidence of someone who has the backing of the establishment. In that regard, like all vice chancellors, Habib is an appointed gatekeeper, and the gatekeeper who lets everyone in is not doing his job. Uncharitable? Or perhaps the only way to think about the takeover of universities by a managerial community whose skill set is purloined from the corporate sector. What management values most highly is efficiency: efficiency is profitable. Rage and chaos and protest are not efficient. They are not profitable. Rage is out of step with the ideal. And what is the ideal? If we are to judge from what is said in Rebels and Rage, in the institutional communiqués of universities and in the media pronouncements of their representatives, the ideal is a university in which students meekly accept that they are customers. The managers would like students to accept fee increases with the shrugging grace we afford someone brushing shoulders with us in a queue. They boldly declare that their hands are tied, and that the problems of the university are the fault of government.

Of course, this is only good business. The university is premised on an efficient turnover of students who pay their yearly fees in exchange for being processed through a system that neatly parcels out education in bite-sized ‘learning modules’. The system gives little allowance to deviation, and less still to expressions of intractability. It is patently apparent that South African universities were caught napping by what happened. Responses were belated, inadequate, or ill-judged. They revealed a set of institutions unsure of what to do with themselves when confronted with a challenge to their authority.

Those institutions were collectively helmed by a top-heavy upper structure, of which Habib and the other vice chancellors constitute the glad-handing fund-raising public face. The assumption that the modern university needs highly managerial scaffolding has resulted in the absurd situation where management posts have swelled even as faculties have been locked in the dulling clasp of diminishing subsidies and social expectations. University management teams are a hermetic cohort of corporate decerebrates, up-sold professors and soi-disant cost-benefit executives whose alienation from the campuses they preside over was self-evident during the hashtag seasons. Their primary interest is in the triumph of managed space. They speak in portentous jargon stolen from the dubious boardrooms of the business world: everyone is a stakeholder, everything must be in line with the ‘values’ of the organisation and its keywords: excellence, strategy, performance, metrics, measurement, blue-sky thinking. To be avoided: disruptions, expenses, occupations.

The modern university is a feral beast. It has the self-interested posture of all corporations that pretend social concern while affirming the importance of their continued prosperity (which they call, in dramatic terms, ‘survival’). The assumption underpinning much of what is described in Rebels and Rage is that universities are unwieldy things that require the expert intervention of managerial captains in order to avoid capsizing. This vast institutional untruth has been allowed to dictate their development and ‘trajectory’ (a meaningless epithet). Universities are companies now, with shareholders, capital and assets, and the employees who staff them must be encouraged to see themselves as stakeholders in the enterprise, even as management directly disregards the views of those who teach. And the customers? They must not, logically, attempt to interfere with the running of the system.

It follows then that a crisis that sees police and security services being deployed to ensure that students do not interfere with the university machinery is a crisis created by the system. Habib draws the conclusion that he would do everything the same way again, including calling the police on to Wits campus—and in this he is at least consistent. But is consistency what is required here? An imaginative gatekeeper would be one who questions the purpose of the gates, and I’m not sure enough of that is happening here. Habib’s bellicosity diminishes his project rather than adding to it.

There is a book to be written about the events of the Fallist years. That book is neither the emetic self-memorialising of people who happened to be standing in the right place when a statue came down, nor the self-aggrandising nostrum of a managerial baron. Habib is right to position his book as ‘one contribution among many to enable an understanding of the student protests, their structural and immediate causes’, and ‘their character and implications’. He is certainly not claiming, as some commentators have wrongly alleged, that his is the only view. But he is arrogating to himself the right to pronounce sentence on the actions of all parties involved. The book that results is engrossing, but ultimately it is unconvincing.

  • Wamuwi Mbao is an essayist, cultural critic and academic at Stellenbosch University. Follow him on Twitter.

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